Liam Cosgrave: modest, droll, pious and politically cunning

FG leader was an uncompromising and often controversial political figure

Video obituary for former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave presented by Irish Times columnist and author of "The Cosgrave Legacy" Stephen Collins

 

Liam Cosgrave was an uncompromising and often controversial political figure. His record as taoiseach between 1973 and 1977 was mixed but he can be credited with two outstanding achievements during his term of office.

The first was to ensure that the democratic institutions of the State survived the biggest assault on their legitimacy since the Civil War in the shape of the campaign of violence waged by the Provisional IRA.

The second was to demonstrate that it was possible for Fine Gael to provide the leadership of an alternative government in the face of the Fianna Fáil monolith which had dominated the politics of the state since 1932.

Ireland was a very different country when Cosgrave became taoiseach in 1973. By the time he left office for good 40 years ago, after a savage general election defeat, he already looked and sounded to many people like a politician from an earlier age.

Cosgrave did not possess the more obvious attributes of the successful Irish politician and was never an easy man-of-the-people like so many TDs then and now. His very ordinariness was his most striking feature yet he showed great political courage and calm at times of crisis.

Modest, droll, pious, politically cunning but utterly lacking flamboyance, Cosgrave possessed a self-reliance and strength of character that made him a resilient and successful politician even if he never won the kind of popularity achieved by his great political rival Jack Lynch of Fianna Fáil.

He was always conscious of the political legacy of his father WT Cosgrave who led the independent Irish State for the first decade of its existence. That fuelled his determination to protect the institutions of the State at whatever political cost.

Elected Fine Gael leader in 1965, he stoically took the general election defeat in 1969 in his stride and was determined to solider on despite mutterings from the so called “Young Tigers” in the party who regarded him as too conservative and lacking in charisma.

Some years ago one of his successors as taoiseach, John Bruton, who was one of those “Young Tigers”, summed up his predecessor’s approach to power: “Liam Cosgrave had a very strong sense of what this State had achieved since 1921. In certain senses in his own physical presence he embodied the flinty integrity that created this State.”

He came within hours of being deposed as party leader in December 1972 when he made no secret of his determination to back the Offenses Against the State Bill introduced by the Fianna Fáil government to combat the growing threat of the IRA.

He remained resolute despite the fact that the majority of his parliamentary party intended to vote against the bill and it looked as if there was no way he could survive as party leader. However, just hours before a crucial Dáil vote the first loyalist bombs went off in Dublin and his TDs scuttled back to support his stance.

Just three months later, he was taoiseach, presiding over “a government of all the talents” in the shape of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition which contained intellectual figures like Garret FitzGerald and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

There was considerable suspicion of Cosgrave on the left wing of the Labour Party before the government was formed but he proved to be the perfect coalition leader establishing a warm and trusting relationship with Labour leader Brendan Corish.

The previous experience of inter-party governments between 1948 and 1957 had widely discredited the concept of coalition but Cosgrave’s achievement was to prove that they could work. That paved the way for a succession of coalition governments over the following decades.

Former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

His government initiated a whole serious of reforms in the area of welfare, taxation and house building. Coming into office against the backdrop of a housing crisis the minister for local government Jimmy Tully initiated a building programme that resulted in 30,000 units a year being built.

Welfare rates were increased significantly with the introduction for the first time of the single parent allowance and minister for finance Richie Ryan introduced a controversial wealth tax.

However, the government’s reform programme was compromised by the oil crisis of 1974 which required a steep increase in taxation. That eroded its popularity with Ryan being dubbed “Richie Ruin” by RTÉ’s satirical programme Hall’s Pictorial Weekly.

Cosgrave himself was at the centre of another politically damaging episode when he voted against his own government’s attempt to legalise contraception. There was general consternation when he and a small group of Fine Gael TDs voted against the Family Planning Bill introduced by minister for justice Patrick Cooney. Cosgrave was a pious Catholic and he simply could not contemplate voting against the dictates of his church.

What is often overlooked is that the government had agreed from the beginning to have a free vote on the issue while the Fianna Fáil opposition imposed the whip against the measure. The result was the defeat of the first attempt to legislate for what was then a contentious issue.

The biggest problem faced by that government was the appalling violence which destroyed so many lives on both sides of the border. Cosgrave was implacably opposed to the campaign being waged by the Provisional IRA and used all the available resources of the state to try and contain it.

On the political front his government pursued an accommodation with the British and the unionists which resulted in the Sunningdale Agreement which provided for a power sharing executive in Northern Ireland and a Council of Ireland. Although it ultimately ended in failure, it provided the template for the Belfast Agreement more than 20 years later.

“Sunningdale for slow learners” was how SDLP deputy leader Séamus Mallon characterised the 1998 agreement.

His detestation of IRA violence prompted Cosgrave to make a serious political error when he stood by his minister for defence Paddy Donegan after he had insulted president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh describing his as “a thundering disgrace”.

Following the murder of the British ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart Biggs, Ó Dálaigh referred emergency legislation to the Supreme Court despite the unanimous advice of the Council of State that the bill was constitutional. Cosgrave was deeply upset by the president’s decision and allowed his views to cloud his political judgment.

His government went down to a crushing defeat in the general election of 1977 for a combination of reasons. The tough measures needed to protect the economy, the Ó Dálaigh affair and the Fianna Fáil give-away manifesto which bankrupted the country in the following years all contributed to the scale of the defeat.

Cosgrave stepped down immediately after the election to the consternation of many of his own supporters in Fine Gael and he was succeeded by his great internal rival Garret FitzGerald. Since then he has kept a self imposed vow of silence on political developments believing that it would be demeaning and inappropriate for him comment. He diligently attended Council of State meetings and was easily the longest serving member of that body remaining on it for 44 years.

* Stephen Collins is the author of The Cosgrave Legacy which charts the political careers of W.T and Liam Cosgrave.

Key moments:

1943: Liam Cosgrave was elected to the Dáil for Dublin County at the age of 23 while serving as an Army officer during the Emergency. The move surprised his own family and caused even greater surprise in the household of Desmond FitzGerald (father of Garret) who had been a TD for the constituency and harboured ambitions of regaining it. The subsequent poor relations between Liam Cosgrave and Garret may be traced back to this event.

The young Cosgrave was a member of the Dáil alongside his father for a year and was re-elected in 1944. In 1948 he was appointed as chief whip to the first Inter Party Government and also served in an unusual role for a politician as secretary to the government. He was appointed minister for foreign affairs in the 1954-57 Inter-Party Government

1965: He was elected leader of Fine Gael in succession to James Dillon. He failed to win power in 1969 mainly because of Labour’s rejection of coalition. In 1970 he played a critical role in the development of the arms crisis by going to Taoiseach Jack Lynch with details of the activities of Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney. The two ministers were fired later that night.

Two years later, having failed to capitalise on Fianna Fáil disarray, internal dissidents became increasingly impatient with his leadership. Cosgrave made a famous speech to his party’s ard fheis in May 1972 dubbing them “mongrel foxes.” They came after him again in December of that year but the first loyalist bombs forced them to reconsider.

1973: Cosgrave became taoiseach after a deal with Labour leader Brendan Corish on a joint election manifesto when Jack Lynch called an early election. Cosgrave surprised Labour after the election by offering the party five ministerial posts rather than the four they were expecting on the basis of Dáil strength. That cemented a good working relationship which survived despite intense pressure over the following four years.

1974: Cosgrave shocked the country and his own colleagues by voting against his own government’s family planning bill. He had remained silent during cabinet discussions on the contents of the bill but remarked when the decision to have a free vote was made by Ministers: “Remember a free vote is a free vote.”

Most of them didn’t take the hint and there was consternation when the bill was defeated by 75 votes to 61. There was international bafflement at the vote and the government’s credibility took a hit.

The collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 was another setback and Cosgrave never forgave British prime minister Harold Wilson for capitulating to the loyalists. In the years that followed the IRA and loyalist gangs committed murders, bombings and kidnappings in the Republic, provoking an unflinching response from Cosgrave.

1976: The insult to president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh by minister for defence Paddy Donegan who called him “a thundering disgrace” and the subsequent resignation of the president in 1976 was a damaging episode for Cosgrave who appeared unconcerned at the insult to the president and instead stood by his errant Minister.

1977: In spite of all the setbacks, the government parties won a series of byelections, including the victory of Enda Kenny in Mayo, so Cosgrave was in a confident mood when he called a general election in May 1977. It was only after the Dáil had been dissolved that Fine Gael commissioned an opinion poll. It showed that the Fianna Fáil opposition was on course to win a massive victory but Cosgrave campaigned stoically right to the end. In the aftermath of defeat he generously described his victorious opponent Jack Lynch as “the most popular Irish politician since Daniel O’Connell”.

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